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Finding

I write a lot of things down. In journals, when I feel disciplined; in random notebooks I buy because I like the covers; on loose scraps of paper and receipts and whatever was at hand when a thought struck. The paradox of the note-keeping is that I do it so I won’t forget an idea, an impression, or the fact that we’re out of toilet paper– but despite the distrust of my memory, and an overall lack of organizational system, I rarely forget the pages themselves.

“Have you seen,” I’ll be asking Tim, “a yellow sticky?” 

“There are yellow stickies everywhere.”

“I know, but this one has a note on it of something I saw at Coffee Company. The other day it was by the cucumbers.”

So there was a piece of paper I knew went missing circa nine months ago. It was a sheet of A4 printer paper I’d pulled out of my bag and scrawled some notes on, on the last day we visited Amsterdam. I wanted those notes, to preserve the city as it was to me that day, and so that I could turn them into a blog post. I wanted the notes because—on what seemed like such an important occasion—I’d forgotten our camera; I remember realizing it as we walked to the train. It was a weekend day just before we moved, and structure was somewhat less than normal. By the time I thought to search for my paper, it seemed too late to track in the chaos a plain white sheet. I combed meticulously through stacks created after I gave away my desk to a friend, accompanied by a bottle of wine because anyone who took an object from our house that week also received a bottle we couldn’t take with us. (So did anyone who helped us move an object from our house.) The notes never surfaced, and my last guess (aside from being recycled) was that they’d been mixed into the folder of pages we left for the incoming tenant of our apartment. I could only hope I hadn’t written anything too embarrassing.

This morning, on the doorstep of 2015, I picked a book off the bookshelf that I wanted to give away. I’d started it months ago and lost interest. I thumbed through it and a paper slid out: white, soft, littered with my handwriting. And as I squinted at my own appalling scrawl, scenes sprang up so vividly I thought I could breathe their air.

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It had been tulip season, and from the train we saw the fields ablaze. The sun came out warm, I wrote, and Amsterdam was mobbed: throngs of tourists, tornadoes of pot smoke. We wandered down the Haarlemmerdijk taking in the usual sights: boats, bachelorettes, stylish Amsterdammers and a shirtless man drinking a beer by the canal. We stopped at Two for Joy, my favorite cafe, where I would often write when in Amsterdam. In honor of our last day, I touristed myself and bought one of the cafe’s logo espresso cups. The server couldn’t find one of the matching saucers new and asked if I would be OK with one that had been in use, taken from the drying rack of the cafe itself. I couldn’t have liked it more.

We continued to the Noordermarkt, bustling and sunny, where we sampled pears and bread. We spent fifteen minutes at a vendor of old postcards: places we have been, places we haven’t. I bought one of Delft, intending still to frame it. We lingered near street musicians; I watched a girl pass with Obama stickers on her Dutch bicycle. I want, I wrote, to remember this.

The last night we were in Amsterdam, we ate at a little Italian restaurant we’d visited several times before. Friendly, warm, gezellig, and neighborhood-feeling. The kind of place we always insisted we wouldn’t consume a whole bottle of wine, and then did. That night a man wandered in, one I could recognize right away as hoping to sell something. In cities all across Europe, we’ve been approached at restaurant tables while a man, smiling, wordless, seemingly always in a dark jacket, holds out a rose and waits until we become uncomfortable or say “no, thank you,” enough times. I have a complicated soft spot for these people, always curious what their lives are like and how much money you can really earn selling flowers table to table.

But this man didn’t have flowers. Or Kleenex, or cheap greeting cards, or any of the other variations we’d seen. He had a camera.

It was an old Polaroid, hanging around his neck, and as he approached our table he held it up, asking if we wanted a photo. I almost shook my head by default and then realized–yes. Yes, we want a picture; how perfect is this? I scooted around to the other side of the table, next to Tim, and the man snapped a single shot, waved it a little, and walked away with a few Euros before the image had even appeared.

By many definitions, it’s not the greatest photo. We weren’t dressed up; we look like we’d been out all day. I’m wearing a drab sweater and scarf. My hair is short; I can’t believe how much it’s grown. Tim sports his Euro-goatee, which got the razor shortly after. In front of us on the table are a half-eaten pizza and a wine glass. The image is framed in such a way that we could be anywhere—the main background is a boring white wall—but out the window behind my head you can make out bike wheels in the dark. Amsterdam.

As soon as I saw the photo I remember thinking it already looked old. The vintage style helps, but it was as if even in the moment I could feel that day slipping, belonging to a chapter that would close. Before months had elapsed we’d pick it up and say, “We look young,” or, “Do you remember when…”

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This December we brought a tree home on our car. This was quite the shift from previous years. We decorated with ornaments gathered from our travels, resulting in that wintry mix of joy and nostalgia. Over the holiday a relative told me that she checks my blog, but wondered why I hadn’t been writing. I’ve wondered that, too; all I’ve got is that there hasn’t been a lot to say. Closing a chapter is hard, and there are no notes you can find to help you through.

The best analogy I’ve had for the time since our move is that it has felt like someone has died, or like a relationship has ended. At first it was unbearably heavy; then gradually it lightened, but the loss will catch me off guard on any given day.

I didn’t make many resolutions for the new year, but most of the goals I’ve thought up involve writing. One is to use this space again, to talk about moving or travel or anyplace in between. Happy new year, and thanks for reading!

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January Resolutions

Squeaking in on the last day of the first month of the year I keep typing as “2013,” I’d like to muse a bit on resolutions for the coming year. It’s not so much a finger-waving to-do list of tasks I’ll probably fail at, but some ideas that have been stewing since we once again survived (and contributed to) the exploding of the Netherlands on New Year’s Eve.

January was like a tornado: half-marathon training and steps in Tim’s job search and visits from family and a second (in three months) whirlwind trip to the USA following the death of a grandparent. As I said about 100 times to my cousins at the funeral on Monday: We’re going to need more hugging.

So I hope 2014’s got some of that, and meanwhile…

Use the good stuff.

I’m recovering from a weird habit where whenever I got something nice, I would squirrel it away for “a special occasion.” It took me years to realize that this meant never using the good stuff, even wasting it. I recently gave away, nearly intact, a pretty stationery set I bought years ago. I found it perfectly preserved in its little box… covered in dust. If you gave me a fancy bubble bath or a nice perfume, younger me would have saved it, unopened, perpetually waiting for just the right moment.

And I’ve been thinking about how that doesn’t live. Use the fun bubble bath on a Tuesday. Open the good wine, and share it with someone. We have a friend who totally exemplifies this. He loves to buy nice wines—and then he hosts a dinner, and uncorks them. And you know what? They’re gone, at the end of the night. And that’s OK.

So, perhaps relatedly, this year I want to use good olive oil.

Don’t run at 15 when you could run at 11.

This particular piece of advice came from one of the trainers on The Biggest Loser, my love of which I will not attempt to justify here. A contestant, when pushed, learned that his fastest mile was actually about 4 minutes faster than he’d believed it could be. I do this with my running—underestimating myself, or not really pushing it for fear of winding up passed out on the side of the canal—but I have this theory that whatever you do with your running, you kind of do in other areas of your life. Or at least I do.

And so this year I want to run fast.

Remember the wars.

2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of WWI, and the 70th anniversary of D Day and the Battle of Normandy. Living in Europe has made present the world wars and their baggage and their complex history and intricate aftershocks, rendering the handful of facts I might have been able to pull from school-memory woefully thin. I had a WWI reading habit in 2012 that ultimately set our feet in the trenches of Verdun—an eerie experience I don’t intend to forget.

Although my WWII knowledge still needs a tutor (see books below), I had a relative who survived Normandy, and I’ve always intended to make a bit of a pilgrimage there. It’s still on the list.

and

Finish the books I’ve started:

A Short Bright Flash

Illuminations

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

and, if it’s a brilliant, brilliant year, the one I’m writing myself.

Embracing the new year and the SNOW! in New Jersey last week

Embracing the new year and the SNOW! in New Jersey last week

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The Top Views of Delft

I’m in Budapest right now, where my typing is severely inhibited by the keypad on my husband’s tablet. But I did write a post this week, and it is an idea I have been sitting on for a while. It’s currently a candidate for some expat blog awards. Will you check it out on their site and, if you like it, like and comment? Thanks, and be back soon!

http://www.expatsblog.com/contests/805/the-top-views-of-delft

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The Brew Thickens

Counter space is at a premium in this apartment right now. And some of us are in a perpetual state of over-caffeination, from trying out… the new espresso machine.

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When we moved to Europe, I didn’t care for espresso, unless it had been incorporated into a latte. I aspired to like it, but I found it too bitter and gone too soon. I have long been a steady coffee drinker, rarely without a mug in hand when I’m working, especially in the cold months. Espresso and I had a volume problem. Shortly after moving to Delft, we bought a basic filter brewer (I even blogged about it), and I would get excited when we went to Schiphol Airport because there was a Starbucks, and I could order my big 16 oz coffee to drink for roughly an hour. (Now there are Starbuckses in the Hague, and I don’t really go much. But it was a “home comfort” thing in the early days.)

2010... See how happy coffee made me?

2010… See how happy coffee made me?

Espresso trickled into our lives gradually. We were occasionally shamed at home by guests. There were times when friends, after dinner, would say, “Let’s have some coffee,” and Tim would get up and brew a big pot and we would pour some mugs and put them on the table with a sugar bowl and some milk and our European friends would blink a few times, say, “Oh… you make American coffee,” and then politely take 1-2 sips before asking us how we could drink this watery business. (The idea of coffee after dinner was new to us, too—closing the evening meal with an espresso regardless of the hour.)

There were some pivotal cups along the way. A couple years ago when the canals froze I was laid up in bed conquering some terrible stomach illness while Tim went skating with a Dutch friend. After hours in the cold, they warmed up with some coffee back at the other guy’s place. Tim came home raving about how good the espresso was, and how his friend had this fantastic machine, and gets a certain kind of beans, etc. (I think it was akin to trying a fine Belgian ale if you’ve only ever had Miller Lite.) A few months later, brainstorming birthday-gift ideas, I emailed the friend and said, “Hey, Tim really liked the espresso at your place. What kind of machine do you have?”

This was when I learned that a good home espresso machine could cost upwards of €500. Birthday ideas drifted elsewhere.

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It wasn’t long before we stopped asking for “American” coffee when we traveled. If I’m in Paris, or Rome, or some little Spanish town—I want what the locals are having. In 2011, the first time we went to the Puglia region of southern Italy, we rented a little place equipped with the standard Italian “moka pot,” or stovetop percolator. I referred to it as “the coffee fountain,” for the way it would spurt and bubble. We bought one of these as a souvenir, and would occasionally bust it out at home on Saturday mornings or holidays. (It was fancy coffee.)

There were other travels, and other delightful coffee moments. As I scrolled through photos for this blog post, I realized how many specific instances of coffee I could recall.

Coffee the morning of my 30th birthday, Milan

Coffee the morning of my 30th birthday, Milan

coffee while reading in Oxford, UK

coffee while reading in Oxford, UK

Earlier this year, back in Puglia in the town of Ostuni, we were urged to try a local coffee specialty that was on all the cafe menus: the latte di mandorla. It was espresso, poured over a cup of ice with almond milk or almond syrup. “Don’t add sugar!” the waiter told me dramatically. This sweet, icy espresso drink was perfect for the sweltering southern heat. It just—fit… with the place, the atmosphere, everything.

latte di mandorla, in Ostuni

latte di mandorla, in Ostuni

I don’t remember exactly when we began talking seriously about an espresso machine. Tim was adamant that if we were going to get one, it wasn’t going to be just any old piece of junk, and so the research began. The aforementioned friend took him to a shop in Amsterdam and interpreted Dutch while options were discussed. The machines were pricey, as we had known, and so the idea went dormant for a while.

This August we went to the States, land of giant take-away coffees available at every intersection. The first few times I passed a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through, I would turn in excitedly and order my old standby: medium-French Vanilla-cream-no-sugar. It still rolls off my tongue. And… I found myself sipping it, telling myself I enjoyed it, but internally a little confused. Maybe there was too much cream. Finally, toward the end of the trip, I said the fateful words:

“It just doesn’t… taste like anything. I only taste the milk.” And Tim at one point cautiously indicated that, yes, he had missed… espresso.

It was within three weeks of our return that the Quick machine came to live on our kitchen counter. We’ve been finishing dinner with a decaf, and I’ve been spurting milk everywhere trying to make lattes. The filter machine is feeling, understandably, a bit marginalized. It doesn’t know that in places like Delft’s Coffee Company, American-style filter coffee has just been introduced, like it’s the new wave.

Filter coffee in Delft (I tried it. Didn't love it.)

Filter coffee in Delft (I tried it. Didn’t love it.)

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Houses

There’s an English idiom where you “take a trip down memory lane”—meaning, you revisit something from your past. The journey can be just in your mind, but on our recent trip to the States, I got to do it in the literal sense.

On our way to an appointment in the Boston area, Tim and I were going to pass dicht bij the little carriage house we had been renting before we moved to Europe. “Please,” I requested, insisting we had time, “let’s drive by.”

In Boston you can stumble upon some pretty cool rentals, if you change apartments enough or get lucky; and in my opinion this was one of the special ones: a tiny, free-standing house that had been all ours. It had some… um, vintage features that could have used updating. Like the plethora of original hundred-year-old windows, and the fireplace plagued by mold and drafts, and the occasional unwanted guest. Oh, and at least one utter catastrophe. But it had been home. It was even where I began this blog, as momentous as that may or may not have been.

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Circa 2009

We drove slowly down the street. “Whoa!” we exclaimed, reaching identical conclusions simultaneously. Someone, presumably our former landlord, had gone extreme-makeover on our old house. New windows. New siding, of a friendly green color rather than the previous brown-by-default-or-time. “The plants are gone,” I said, meaning the snarly ones that had prevented us from seeing out the kitchen windows. In their place was some basic landscaping and a little, continuous yard.

(Also absent was any evidence of my early attempts at a vegetable garden, which as I recall yielded very little produce.)

Original garden, also circa 2009

Original garden, also circa 2009

Not wanting to appear overly stalkerish, we drove away after a minute, mumbling regretful things. “I would live in that house now,” one of us commented, remarking that we should certainly call our old landlord if we move back to that area. “Me, too,” the other agreed, remarking that of course, he has probably hiked the rent beyond our means.

The transformation of the little house was so striking that I told basically everyone I saw about it, and later posted a few “before” and “after” photos on my Facebook page. That night as I went to bed, thinking about the house, I thought:

Sure, anyone would love that house now. But you know what? I loved that house when the wind came through every window. I loved it from the moment we first visited after answering the Craigslist listing, when my sensible husband was pointing out things like the tiny galley kitchen and noticing that the previous tenants had felt the need to keep rat poison on hand. I saw only the huge, old sliding doors flanked by windows with dozens of panes of glass, opening onto the peeling terrace overlooking a busy road.

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I loved that house when we couldn’t keep it warm in the winter because the heat slipped out like we’d left the doors open, and I tolerated it in the summer when the loft became too hot for sleeping. I mowed the tiny lawn with pride (it took about two swipes) and felt like a baby homeowner.

Later in this same trip home, I was in the car in New Jersey with my mom when she asked if I wanted to drive by our old house, where I grew up from about 4 to 14. We commented on places where the neighborhood looked different or the same, and then each did a neck-bending double-take. Surely that couldn’t be our old house? I mentally counted in from the corner. I looked at the number. It was the house.

The house my parents labored over and landscaped had been completely let go. It was an absolute dive: pieces missing from around the windows. Weird stains on the siding. Wires dangling over the garage. Plants left to do whatever they would, like die. I was grateful that I couldn’t see into the backyard, or I might actually have cried. The house was inhabited, but it was clear that no one was caring for it. And although that house hasn’t been ours for more than a decade, it hurt to see it that way. It still felt like we had some right to bang on the door and demand what had happened.

Going home can be weird. Going to what used to be home can be uncomfortable. A place you’ve given that label never really loses it, even when you think you’ve scraped it off and moved the sticker to a new location.

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Frankfurt, August 2013

I rush through Frankfurt Airport in plenty of time to sit at my overcrowded gate and as I near it, it happens:

I am surrounded by Americans.

My expat ears are tuned to American English in public settings, not because I miss it, but because I know it. I am used to hearing it in small clusters, or in tour groups of 30-40 (sometimes following me around). I am no longer used to being in a group of 100+ members of my own nationality—and here they all are. I have a feeling this flight is going to be noisy.

I can read their book titles (sampling: If God Was a Banker, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Gone Girl). I know the places on their t-shirts. I recognize their signature style of jeans.

And it’s true: they’re loud. On my linking flight from Amsterdam to Frankfurt, the entire airplane was treated to 40 minutes of clear, precise English at maximum—er, his normal—volume by a man I swear I thought was sitting right behind me until I looked and realized he was quite a ways back. He engaged his European seatmate in topics ranging from Buddhism to Switzerland to the dozen museums he just saw in Amsterdam (no, he never made it beyond Amsterdam). If I had sat next to this guy, it occurs to me, I might have pretended that I didn’t know English.  

The other day I told someone that going to your home country after a long time away (in my current case, fourteen months) is like getting together with an ex. You’re not sure how it’s going to go, exactly. You might really hit it off! and wonder why you ever parted ways. You might reflect on the bittersweet past, but conclude that you made the right choice. Or you might want to run screaming from the restaurant.

Americans, I must point out, are awesome at airport security. The guy in front of me who had two liters of soda in his carry-on? Not American. The woman with a shopping bag full of salad dressing? Not American. For better or worse, Americans who fly even occasionally are standing in security lines with their shoes off, belts in the trays, and laptops out of the case.

The Americans at my gate, passports tucked under their arms (or, yes, strung on lanyards around their necks) are people of every possible skin hue. When I’m on a flight with mostly Dutch people—it’s visually obvious. There’s still, overall, a cohesive genetic heritage.

More than a few of the Americans are large. Did you know that recently someone told me he wouldn’t have guessed I was American, because I’m thin? (He guessed Spanish, so maybe he wasn’t that astute.) Right or wrong, Europe knows Americans as big. Big houses. Big cars. Bigger.

So I board my big old plane to the US. There’s another man (not the man from my first leg—I check) a few rows back, talking up a storm (“I’m married, you know; my wife, she’s a beautiful lady, like you…”). A boy with an American passport but whose mother clearly has an Eastern European first language sits next to me. In perfect, eager American English, he tells me how to operate my seat’s personal TV. I put on my headphones and take out my knitting (once again, knitting needles clear security no problem). The stewardess who comes around tries German, then French with me before guessing at English.

It’s going to be a long flight to Newark.

 

 

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Just one of those days

Sun, snow, and rain with a chance of hail. Welcome to the Netherlands’s transition to spring.

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